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A Soldier's Play
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Joan Marcus
Taye Diggs in
A Soldier's Play
Taut it's not. Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play is a whodunit murder mystery less concerned with the who than the why--in this case, a deadly tangle of racial and class resentments roiling among a company of black soldiers stationed in Louisiana in 1944.

But there are all those pesky facts to go over, as a sleek, straight-spined young officer, Captain Davenport (Taye Diggs), arrives to investigate the point-blank shooting of the company's sergeant. Indeed, Davenport might be named Captain Exposition for all the redundant narration he must deliver and all the flashbacks he must dutifully extract from his subjects. When he's not interrogating the enlisted men with the special prescience of the fictional detective--the sort of super-lawyer/psychologist/mastermind who knows how to lead a witness to the precise revelation that will unlock the next story point--Davenport is wrestling heatedly with the company's white commander, Taylor (Steven Pasquale), over the course of his inquiry.

In other words, this is a by-the-book military procedural, in which one honest man rattles the chain of command, breaks the code of silence, is told he can't handle the truth, etc. We might endure the genre's clunky conventions more gladly if the intriguing racial layers Fuller added to the familiar Mister Roberts/Caine Mutiny Court Martial template didn't also come off so awkwardly, or if director Jo Bonney's new production at Second Stage had more rhythm or nuance. Instead it's a heavy-spirited affair that only highlights the play's weaknesses; it fails as a mystery and mostly fumbles its pointed observations on race and power.

Neil Patel's semi-circle set, which doubles as a barracks and as an interrogation room, is shorn of any lived-in detail, and David Weiner's lights are stark for the present, dusky for flashbacks. It's a conception that only stresses the feeling that the recent past--the bad old days when Sergeant Waters (James McDaniel) strutted the barracks like a little Hitler--is the play's real present time. It's certainly the most alive the play ever gets, even if the conflicts are drawn in broad, slightly confused strokes: Waters was a holy terror consumed with racial self-hatred, who openly mused about purging the black race of its less educated, so-called "geechy" specimens, then set about more or less methodically to destroy one, the sweet-natured country boy C.J. (Mike Colter).

Story continues below


This intra-racial enmity is the play's core drama--what Davenport painfully refers to as "the Cain and Abel story of the week"--and it remains its most compelling strain. It is to Bonney's credit that she plays against the house Negro stereotype by casting the dark-skinned McDaniel in a role written for a "light-brown-skinned" actor (it was played by Adolph Caesar onstage and in the film version, A
©2005 Joan Marcus
Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie & Teagle F. Bougere in A Soldier's Play
Soldier's Story
). Clearly men of any shade, and not only the "high yellows," can be "split by the madness of race in America," as Davenport puts it.

Whether this play-within-the-play is dramatically convincing, though, is another matter. McDaniel exudes the pathetically puffed-up power of the petty tryant, and he relishes Waters' twisted speechifying, toting a pipe self-consciously as if to strike a Gen. MacArthur profile (interestingly, Davenport says he prizes his shiny sunglasses for precisely the same reason). But he's a paper tiger, ultimately more sad than scary; his killing seems an act of mercy as much as vengeance.

His charges are an indistinct lot, except as required by the rudiments of plot: There's the gentle victim C.J., the fiery rebel Petersen (Anthony Mackie), and the simpering patsy Wilkie (Michael Genet). None of the actors in these roles makes a particularly strong impression, even when they're over-playing, as Genet does.

As the irritable white commander Taylor, Pasquale renders the impossible character arc of the slowly recovering racist with impacted intensity. And the even-keeled Diggs manages to pierce through the embalming virtue of his role in a few soliloquies, in which he subtly and movingly teases out some bittersweet ironies. In a few years, the U.S. Army will be desegregated; but while we know there's a brighter future ahead for blacks in the military, and probably for Davenport himself, the company that survived Sergeant Waters, we're told, perished to a man in combat in Germany. And, to add insult to dishonor, Waters' death was officially misreported as a heroic fall in battle.

These notes of complication, sounded in the play's final minutes, are too little, too late to make A Soldier's Play consistently resonant or gripping. But they do make its discharge of duty more honorable.

A Soldier's Play
By Charles Fuller
Directed by Jo Bonney
Second Stage Theatre

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 10/17/2005 4:12:00 PM

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